Changes in the Meanings of Individualism and Democracy in America

Virginia R. Bensen

During the nineteenth century, the terms democracy and individualism have taken multiple meanings, and those meanings have become interchanged throughout Western Europe and in America. The interchange of the term democracy and individualism stems from early nineteenth century Germans. The French during this same time denoted the term individualism as egotistical and selfish. By the 1840s the meaning again changed in English and French to denote the ideal of the free individual and was used by the French to describe Americans. By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans used the terms self-reliance, and self-made man to interchange with the term individualism. (1)

Nineteenth-century American philosophers challenged the interpretations of these two terms and provided newer meanings that seemed to adapt better to an industrialized society. According to historian Koenradd W. Swart, he describes the term individualism to have three definitions: rights of man or political liberalism, the doctrine of laissez-faire or economic liberalism, and romantic individualism. (2). Historian Louise Knight uses these same three meanings to describe the three definitions of the nineteenth century word democracy. (3) Swart’s first meaning of individualism is political liberalism, which is described by Knight’s first definition of democracy as the right to vote. Swart’s second meaning, or laissez-faire economic liberalism, is described by Knight  as economic, but further describes it as “the freedom of the individual to act in his own best interest, to compete, to obey no one but himself.” Swart’s third meaning of individualism takes on the romantic sentiment. This is labeled as “social” by Knight and is described as promoting a feeling of equality among people from all walks of life. All three meanings of both these terms became highly contested during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. According to these two historians, these three different meanings of democracy and individualism caused much of the basis for dispute during the Progressive Era in America.

Concept of Democracy in America 

Both sociological, historical and philosophical theorist studies have tried to grapple with the concept, definition, principles, and applications of the term democracy. According to many sources, the term and concept of democracy are multi-dimensional and requires certain prerequsites existing in a nation’s political and societal conditions. (5) Much of the scholarly literature regarding democracy tends to focus on the conditions, components or outcomes of democracy. (6) In rhetoric, the term for democracy can become a means toward fulfillment of social justice. (7) A journal article by Larry Diamond and Leonardo Morlino, “The Quality of Democracy: An Overview,” summarizes clearly and succinctly the components and attributes of a democracy. At minimum, a democratic government requires universal adult suffrage, recurring and free competitive and fair elections, more than one serious political party, and alternative sources of information. After these three requisites are met, then a government must achieve three primary goals to maintain and to further develop that democracy. Thee goals are political and civil freedoms, popular sovereignty, and political equality of rights and powers. (8)

American modern democratic theory is based upon the concept of the nation-state and the assumption that political communities can control their destinies and that citizens can come together to form a view of what is best for them within a view of common good. According to David Held, America’s founders took for granted that all the critical elements of self-determination could be specified with respect to systems of representation and democratic accountability. The founders further acknowledged that clear-cut distinctions could be elaborated and the national institutions built upon the difference between internal and external policies and between domestic and foreign affairs. It was further assumed that ” the nature and possibilities, and the freedom, political equality and solidarity could be entrenched in and through the nation-state.”(9). This construction of our national democracy has been contested by social, economic, and cultural groups, including the woman suffrage movement. America’s theory of “democracy” as it emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, created a link between the populace, citizenship, electoral mechanism, and the nature of consent. This evolved theory also created the boundaries between the nation and the states. (10) As the democratic theorist, Paul Fairfield points out, the application of democracy in a government has the “capacity not only to cope with change, but to embrace it.” The capacity for change is among the most fundamental points of distinction between democratic politics and its various alternatives. With these many linkages, requisites, and inherent ability to change, grasping the concepts of democracy can be confusing and challenging, even among scholars. (11)

Another area in the study of the term democracy has been the creation of subtyping “democracy,” and with premising definitions of democracy to fit specific situations.  Subtypes have been used when describing a “democracy” that is missing specific attributes of it. This has been used in the study of woman suffrage. Examples of this concept are the combining of two terms such as male democracy, or oligarchy democracy. An example of Precising the definition of democracy is exemplified in the use of the term industrial democracy.

According to democratic theorist, Paul Fairfield, one of democracy’s salient features is “the desire to stand to other persons in a relation of fundamental moral equality, where ostensible moral differences between persons (or indeed between nations and cultures) are decisively rejected and persons in general stand to one another as equals.”(12). Fairfield also claims that another feature of democracy is the peaceful and regular transformation within a constitutional order. Both statements imply that the existence of peace must be present for an effective democracy to exist. (13)

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

52 thoughts on “The Changing Meanings of Individualism and Democracy”

  1. I was recommended this website through my cousin. I’m now not sure whether this publish is written by means of him
    as nobody else realize such distinct about my trouble.
    You are wonderful! Thanks!

  2. What’s up to every one, since I am genuinely eager of reading this weblog’s post to be updated
    on a regular basis. It includes fastidious data.

  3. You can certainly see your skills in the work you
    write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe.

    All the time go after your heart.

  4. I think this is among the most important info for me.
    And i’m glad reading your article. But wanna remark on some general things, The web
    site style is wonderful, the articles is really great : D.
    Good job, cheers

  5. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this blog.
    I am hoping to check out the same high-grade content from
    you in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own blog now 😉

  6. Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you happen to be a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and will often come
    back someday. I want to encourage continue your great writing,
    have a nice weekend!

  7. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto
    a colleague who has been doing a little homework on this.

    And he actually ordered me lunch due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him…

    lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this issue here on your web page.

  8. Greetings from Ohio! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to browse your website on my iphone during lunch break.
    I really like the knowledge you provide here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

    I’m shocked at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone ..

    I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, wonderful blog!

  9. I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post’s to be just what I’m looking
    for. Do you offer guest writers to write content for yourself?
    I wouldn’t mind publishing a post or elaborating on a
    few of the subjects you write about here. Again, awesome web site!

  10. hello there and thank you for your information – I have
    definitely picked up something new from right here.

    I did however expertise several technical issues using this web site, as I experienced to reload the website lots of times previous
    to I could get it to load correctly. I had been wondering if your web hosting is OK?
    Not that I’m complaining, but slow loading instances times
    will often affect your placement in google and could damage your high-quality score if ads
    and marketing with Adwords. Anyway I’m adding this RSS to my email and could look out for a
    lot more of your respective exciting content. Ensure that you update this
    again very soon.

  11. We’re a bunch of volunteers and opening a new
    scheme in our community. Your website offered us with useful info to work on.
    You have performed an impressive job and our entire group shall be thankful to
    you.

  12. Howdy! This article couldn’t be written any better!
    Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He constantly kept preaching about this. I will send
    this information to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a good read.

    Thanks for sharing!

  13. You’re so cool! I don’t believe I have read anything like this before.
    So nice to discover someone with some genuine thoughts on this subject
    matter. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is needed on the
    web, someone with a bit of originality!

  14. I’ve been browsing online more than 2 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours.
    It’s pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all
    website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the web
    will be a lot more useful than ever before.

  15. Hello I am so glad I found your blog page, I
    really found you by mistake, while I was looking on Askjeeve for something else, Anyways I am here
    now and would just like to say kudos for a marvelous post and a all round exciting blog (I also
    love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through it all
    at the moment but I have bookmarked it and also added in your RSS feeds, so when I
    have time I will be back to read a great deal more, Please do keep up the great b.

  16. Hi there just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly.
    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.

  17. Does your blog have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d
    like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some ideas
    for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward
    to seeing it improve over time.

  18. Hey I am so happy I found your blog page, I really found you by error, while I was searching on Bing for something else,
    Anyways I am here now and would just like to say thank you for a remarkable
    post and a all round exciting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to
    read through it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and also added in your RSS feeds,
    so when I have time I will be back to read a lot more, Please do keep up
    the superb work.

  19. Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your blog
    and in accession capital to assert that I acquire actually enjoyed account your blog posts.
    Anyway I will be subscribing to your augment and even I achievement you access consistently quickly.

  20. Hello! This is my first visit to your blog!

    We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche.
    Your blog provided us valuable information to work on. You have done a marvellous job!
    34pIoq5 cheap flights

  21. Hiya very nice web site!! Man .. Excellent .. Wonderful ..
    I’ll bookmark your web site and take the feeds also?
    I am satisfied to find so many useful information right here in the publish, we’d like develop more strategies in this
    regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . . cheap flights 2CSYEon

  22. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your post seem to be running
    off the screen in Firefox. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know.
    The layout look great though! Hope you get the problem resolved
    soon. Kudos 3gqLYTc cheap flights

  23. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Many thanks cheap flights 3gqLYTc

  24. Howdy! This blog post couldn’t be written much better!
    Looking at this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually
    kept preaching about this. I am going to
    forward this article to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a great read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

  25. Hey there! Someone in my Myspace group shared this website with us so
    I came to take a look. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and will be
    tweeting this to my followers! Excellent blog and
    superb design.

  26. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.

    I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to
    seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I’ve shared your
    web site in my social networks!

  27. I would also like to add when you do not already have got an insurance policy or perhaps you do not remain in any group insurance, you may well reap the benefits of seeking aid from a health broker. Self-employed or those with medical conditions commonly seek the help of a health insurance brokerage service. Thanks for your writing.

  28. Hey! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group? There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.